I spent the last two years working on a huge project: transitioning from a library to a learning commons. Oh, the library is still here, albeit with fewer books—quite a bit fewer, in fact. We are down to about a third of what we had when I came here three years ago.

I’ll leave the actual “how” of this accomplishment for a later post. Today I’d like to talk about the transition itself, and how the students reacted to the change.

Of course construction took longer than planned. Originally we were slated to move in after finals in December. That didn’t happen. We remained in the small, cramped student game room across from the cafeteria. Fortunately we were able to move the books and get them on the shelves in the new space before we left for Christmas break. Furniture—some of it—was delivered the first week of January. None of the office furniture was ready, and we were given “loaners.”

But, the circulation desk was here, and all of the student furniture, and we were able to open when second semester began. We utilized part of the old library; the Student Success Center moved in to part of the old library, and we added on a section for offices and the Commons area.

One of my criteria when we renovated was that we needed color! Previously, the walls were beige, the shelving putty gray, and the carpet gray. The furniture had some color, but not enough to make much of a difference. The prison library I’d worked in was more colorful!

Another criterion was comfortable, moveable furniture. The former stuff was heavy, with wooden arms on the chairs. It was difficult to drag the stuff across the room to do any kind of group work, although the students did do it. Inevitably, staff got to move it back, which wasn’t fun.

Both of those criteria were fulfilled.

What was it about the Learning Commons idea that seemed so intriguing? Again, it came down to the students.

One of the concepts of the Learning Commons is to provide student learning services under one umbrella; instead of having tutoring services and the library in separate buildings, we felt it would be more beneficial for students to have both services co-located.

Another concept is that the Learning Commons is more patron-centered than the traditional library. Our vision is a transformed space which blends the library’s traditional role as a place of books and contemplation with its emerging role as a place for learning and collaboration. One important concept about a Learning Commons is that the space is transitional and will change as user needs dictate.

Our learning commons has been designed with the above definition in mind. Some of the features of the Learning Commons are: spaces for collaboration and spaces for individual study; study rooms; personnel to help with research; a faculty center; more focus on Science, Technology, and Math; access to databases; video editing rooms; hard-wired computers as well as laptops and iPads; IT staff to trouble-shoot computer issues; a reading terrace; variety of seating options; a coffee shop featuring Starbucks products; and last but not least, books, magazines, newspapers, and DVDs!

The biggest difference in the new space is that we want it to offer more ownership to the users; in other words, a space that belongs to everyone. We want the Commons to be a place that will be inviting to all. Abilene Christian University, when it was contemplating changing to a Learning Commons concept, expressed these ideas, which we embrace:

 “We envision a place that draws students in, encouraging them to work not only individually but also in groups; we must provide an abundance of printed and digital resources; we must bring together expertise in interpreting information, solving technological problems, and writing and preparing assignments; and we must facilitate intellectual and social dialogue.”

Another big difference is that, because of the change in focus, we do not expect the Commons to be nearly as quiet as a “traditional” library, although we do provide quiet areas for those students who prefer to study in a more peaceful environment. The noisiness lessens as the patrons move farther and farther away from the coffee shop, which is located near the north end of the library.

Now, for the most important question: how do the students like the change? They were in awe as they walked into the new space; they couldn’t believe how open it was; they loved the different types of seating options: comfortable lounge chairs, bar-type tables, square tables that could be moved together; bistro tables in the coffee bar area; and even study carrels. I saw all of the possibilities being utilized, which was thrilling!

A survey at the end of the semester revealed that most of the students loved the new Commons. We had a couple of people say that it was too noisy, but for the most part, it was extremely well-received.

I can say I’m proud of what we accomplished. The looks on the students’ faces, and watching as they make the space their own, give me great satisfaction. It’s theirs, not mine, and that’s how it should be.

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